31031 - English Literature 1 (M-Z)

Course Unit Page


This teaching activity contributes to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN 2030 Agenda.

Quality education Gender equality

Academic Year 2022/2023

Learning outcomes

At the end of the course students are aware of the main lines of literary history. They are able to read, understand and translate texts in foreign language, and they are acquainted with the fundamental methods and analytical tools that are needed to interpret the works of the major authors, contextualising them against the cultural and historical period of reference.


Course contents

NB This course is divided into two modules. Module 1 (30 hours), which will be taught by Prof. Maurizio Ascari, needs to be taken in conjunction with module 2 (30 hours), which will be taught by Prof. Gino Scatasta.

Module 1: Wizards and witches in the English Renaissance theatre: knowledge, power and gender identity

Magic played a key role in early-modern society and culture. Suffice it to think of figures such as Cornelius Agrippas or John Dee, who was astrologer and mathematician at the court of Queen Elizabeth. King James's obsession with witches is also well-known. The persecution of 'witches' commenced in Scotland around 1590, under the reign of James VI (later James I of England), and was followed by the publication of his famous treatise Daemonologie (1597).

The cultural representation of magic enables us to deal with subjects of great interest, such as the way in which knowledge was articulated between the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, when new experimental disciplines developed, marking the transition towards modern science. Moreover, this theme also enables us to assess some of the forms of control to which knowledge was subject, notably on the part of ecclesiastical authorities, for knowledge and power – as the French philosopher Foucault reminded us – are closely connected.

Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (ca 1588-92) is a case in point, since in this play faith and knowledge are contrasted according to the Biblical archetype of the tree of knowledge, whose fruit caused the exile of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden. The protagonist of this tragedy is a theologian from the University of Wittemberg, the city where Luther lived and where the Protestant reformation started. Faustus’ decision to make a deal with the devil in order to gain access to unbound knowledge, however, results only in damnation.

The course will also delve into the gender dimension of these plays, where two forms of 'magic' can be identified: a masculine and a feminine approach to esoteric knowledge, whose treatment in Renaissance drama differs considerably. In Macbeth (ca 1603-6) and The Masque of Queens (1609) witches are depicted as repugnant and abominable beings. The importance witches acquired in the British imagination of those years is proved by Ben Jonson's choice to include these figures precisely in a masque, that is to say in an allegorical spectacle that was staged at court to celebrate royal power. Here witches embody disorder and are vanquished by the harmonious authority of the sovereigns – James I and his wife Anne of Denmark.

On the other hand, in The Tempest (ca 1610-11) Prospero is portrayed as a benevolent patriarch. Thanks to his magic powers, Prospero has imposed his authority on the island which had been previously governed by the evil witch Sycorax, Caliban's mother, and he will also ultimately shape the destinies of all the other characters in the play. In the epilogue, Prospero is even presented as an alter ego of the dramatist, strengthening the analogy between magic and theatre that was a recurring theme in Renaissance drama.

Another aim of the course is to approach a variety of theatrical genres, ranging from tragedy (Dr. Faustus and Macbeth) to romance (The Tempest), the masque (The Masque of Queens) and the domestic tragedy (The Witch of Edmonton), with its combination of crime and the supernatural.

Module 2: Fourteenth-Century English Literature

The second half of the fourteenth century traditionally marks the beginning of English literature with the works written by Geoffrey Chaucer, in particular The Canterbury Tales. It is a local literature that was however nourished by exchanges and loans with two of the most important European literatures of the period, Italian and French, a sign of a cultural situation in which national borders were not particularly relevant. It is true, however, that themes and characters were treated and reconfigured in different ways according to the different authors and different contexts, as in the case of the Arthurian world taken up by the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and by Chaucer in "The Wife of Bath's Tale".


Module 1

Primary sources

Students are expected to study in view of the exam two of these texts, which will be discussed in class:

Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus (ca 1588-92)

William Shakespeare, The Tempest (ca 1610-11)

William Rowley, Thomas Dekker e John Ford, The Witch of Edmonton (1621)

NB: Students are also expected to know the extracts from literary texts we will discuss in class. These texts will be made available through the slides that will be posted on the Virtuale platform.

Critical sources

Compulsory reading:

Yates, Frances A., Cabbala e occultismo nell’età elisabettiana, Torino, Einaudi, 1982, pp. 3-118. (Biblioteche: Sala Borsa, Archiginnasio, Discipline Storiche, Filosofia, Scienze dell’Educazione, Italiana delle donne)

Students will also have to read two of these three essays:

Coronato, Rocco, introduzione a William Shakespeare, La tempesta, con testo a fronte, cura, introduzione e note di Rocco Coronato, trad. di Gabriele Baldini, Milano, Rizzoli, 2008, pp. 5-44.

Lucking, David, “Our Devils Now Are Ended: A Comparative Analysis of The Tempest and Doctor Faustus”, The Dalhousie Review, Vol. 15, 2000, pp. 151-167.

Nicol, David, “Interrogating the Devil: Social and Demonic Pressure in The Witch of Edmonton”, Comparative Drama, Vol. 38, N. 4, Winter 2004-5, pp. 425-445.

Module 2

Primary Sources

Students are expected to study two texts by Chaucer and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

From Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

"The General Prologue"

"The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale"

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Critical sources

Emilia Di Rocco, Chaucer: Guida ai Canterbury Tales, Roma, Carocci, 2003 (nelle sezioni riguardanti The Canterbury Tales in generale, pp. 7-27, e The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale, pp. 98-105) (B. Dip. LILEC, B. Universitaria)

Piero Boitani, "Introduzione", in Sir Gawain e il cavaliere verde, pp. 11-40 (B. Dip. LILEC, B. Dip. Filologia Classica e Italianistica, B. Archiginnasio, B. Comunale Crevalcore, B. Comunale Pianoro)

Materiale su Virtuale (TLS, Chaucer and feminist criticism)

Literary history: students will also have to know the history of English Literature from the Medieval era to the XVII century. The text is:

Manuale di letteratura e cultura inglese, a cura di Lilla Maria Crisafulli e Keir Elam, Bologna, Bononia University Press, 2009, JUST pp. 1-138.

Teaching methods

Compatibly with the Covid Emergency, the course will include

1) face to face classes, aiming to provide participants with the critical tools they need to interrogate and understand literary texts, both in terms of linguistic analysis and of historical/cultural contexts;

2) the viewing and discussion of films.

If students prove interested in this, some classes will be taught entirely in English.

Assessment methods

The course of English Literature 1 M-Z is composed of two modules and students will consequently have to sit two different oral exams, respectively with Prof. Maurizio Ascari and with Prof. Gino Scatasta.

Each oral exam - which will be in Italian and will last around 15 minutes - aims to evaluate the students' critical and methodological skills. In order to assess these skills, students will be invited to discuss the literary and critical texts that will have been presented during the two modules.

Teaching tools

The Powerpoint slides that will be shown during the course will be made available for students on the Unibo Virtuale platform: https://virtuale.unibo.it/my/

Office hours

See the website of Maurizio Ascari

See the website of Gino Scatasta